GRAND PRAIRIE, TX. — Saturday was a scorcher at The Ballpark in Grand Prairie. The Sunday matinee had a different feel.
That feeling was wet. A light rain came down for much of the morning, keeping the field under close watch — and tarps — of the ground crew.
It didn’t stop baseball from being played, however, and it was exciting baseball at that.
Game 1 featured a coast-to-coast showdown. East Regional winner St. Thomas Aquinas and West Regional winner UC San Diego went to battle. The exciting matinee featured solid pitching, slugging superstars, a bit of history and a homecoming of sorts.
UC San Diego head coach Eric Newman had a busy week. Nevermind that his Tritons were making its first appearance in the Division II Baseball Championships under his six-year tenure. Newman also had twin girls this week. While the team got here Thursday, Newman joined them Saturday.
“I have had a very good week,” Newman said. “Girls are doing great, everybody’s healthy and home now, nothing to worry about there. [My wife] put me on a plane yesterday and said, ‘Don’t leave if you don’t plan on winning the whole thing.’ I said that makes sense.”
It was also a homecoming for the Tritons skipper. Newman graduated from Texas Tech and later coached at Dallas Baptist University — the same DBU that locked up a DI NCAA postseason bid on Sunday — where now-UCSD assistant coach J.T. Bloodworth played under his tutelage.
Both teams had their power bats on display. UCSD’s Jack Larsen started off the scoring with a monstrous, two-run home run that cleared the right field porch in the third inning. St. Thomas Aquinas’ All-American outfielder Giovanni Dingcong would answer in the bottom of the third with a three-run blast of his own.
“The foul ball [before] was a slider, big breaking ball,” Dingcong said. “I was expecting a fastball, that’s all I’d been looking for all day. When he gave it to me, I jumped all over it. The way it was slicing, I thought it was going to get caught or go foul. But the way the winds have been blowing, anything could happen.”
History was made in the fourth inning when Newman challenged a play at the plate. It would be upheld — the Tritons were called out and would have to wait for Larsen to tie the game an inning later — but it was the first time instant replay was used in the DII baseball championships.
On the mound, both aces were firing. STAC’s junior right-hander Frankie Moscatiello struck out four of his first seven batters. UCSD’s senior bulldog Troy Cruz was effectively wild. He was in and out of trouble all day, but aside from one bad pitch to Dingcong, six of his seven frames were goose eggs.
The two teams remained deadlocked until the 12th inning when a crazy finish ensued. Larsen struck again with a double in the top of the 12th. Brandon Shirley would drive him in, who would eventually be driven in by Alex Eliopulos.
“Jack was obviously really locked in,” Newman said. “He was swinging at the right pitches. That’s who he is. He’s been a great player for our program for four years. What you saw today was him putting his talent on display and making the most of his talent here in the [Baseball Championship] to do his best.”
Then came the wild finish. Literally.
“We have talked about that calmness,” St. Thomas Aquinas coach Scott Muscat said. “You just keep playing the game, you keep doing the right things. You have good approaches at the plate, you work a walk, you put the ball in play, you get an error, and good things could happen. And they did. They’ve been doing that all year. Close games, there’s no panic. There’s been nobody getting out of what we’ve taught them to do. Good things happen when you stay in that mode.”
The wildness didn't cease in the nightcap.
Quincy was making its first postseason appearance in program history. Someone forgot to notify the Hawks senior ace Graham Spraker, because he came out firing. The first out in Quincy championship history lore was a strikeout.
"I knew it was going to be one of the biggest games of my life so far," Spraker said. "I wanted to show out. I felt that I competed to the best of my abilities. That was the best lineup I faced this year. I knew if I was going to be successful, I had to follow my pitch plan."
Not to be outdone, Colorado Mesa’s sophomore ace Kyle Leahy had a little magic up his sleeve. He struck out the side in the first inning. He needed just 10 pitches to do it.
That’s efficiency right there.
Tyler Day, who relieved Leahy in the sixth inning, was also quite efficient. He allowed no runs in 3.2 innings of work, getting seven of his eleven outs via strikeout, while walking none to pick up the victory.
"We have a tremendous amount of trust in both young men," Colorado Mesa head coach Chris Hanks said. "Kyle has been our horse for us all year. He pitched two games in the regional. We put a lot of wear on him. He was sharp the first three innings, and then started to tire. He didn't look like the normal Kyle. Kyle doesn't hit people, he doesn't miss spots often, that's why his numbers are the way they are. It was time to change. Day had rest. He's a strike thrower, he's a high velo[city] kid. We just have a tremendous amount of trust in him."
Colorado Mesa and Quincy exchanged blows, with Quincy capturing the lead — its first-ever lead in championship history, mind you — in the bottom of the sixth on a Nolan Snyder two-run double.
And then it happened.
Quincy pulled Spraker in the top of the seventh. Two pitchers combined to allow five runs, without allowing a single hit.
Four walks, five wild pitches, two errors, two fielder’s choices and three stolen bases later, Colorado Mesa was back in the driver’s seat, up 7-3.
"We're really behind each other," Colorado Mesa catcher Kyle Serrano said of his team's relentless attitude. "We never press. We know we're going to be down in some games, every team here is going to be good. We just can't press, we can't freak out if we get behind. We're just behind each other. We know everyone on the bench is going to be ready, and everyone in the lineup is going to show up a hundred percent. Never press, just remain cool, calm and collected."
Serrano and Bligh Madris have been two of the biggest hitters in DII this season. Serrano hit .411 with 23 doubles and nine home runs on the year. Madris hit .438 with 14 doubles, 16 home runs and 13 stolen bases. They went back-to-back in the eighth inning, putting the game out of reach at 10-3.
Day 2 from Grand Prairie was a wild one, both in excitement and action.
One can only imagine what Day 3 has in store for an encore.